Friday, March 12, 2010

Battle of Hanging Rock 12

Part 12: Stalemate

The battle of Hanging Rock began as a major assault on one part of the British camp, but degenerated over time into "skirmishing with detached parties" [1]. These scattered engagements had caused many of the British troops to be driven from the battlefield [2], but the Americans had difficulty completing the victory because "the rout and pursuit of these various [British] corps by a part" of Sumter’s force, "and plunder of the camp by others, had thrown the Americans into great confusion" [3].

South of the British center camp, a mixed force of Provincials, backed up by two cannon, held on in an open area. But although the Americans were disorganized, with "some intoxicated, others plundering in the British camp," still "a respectable number," [4], perhaps 200 in total [5], continued "facing the enemy and pressing them closely" [6]. In this manner, the Provincials "were compelled gradually to give ground 200 yards," [7] or beyond the effective range of the Americans’ rifles.

Sniping Near the Center Camp (two views; click to enlarge). The Americans send long-range rifle fire against the Provincials, who continue to hold the open space south of the center camp.

The British withdrawal was made grudgingly, and they made perhaps two quick bayonet charges against the Americans before falling back to a more secure position [8]. At the time of these charges, the British were under attack "in a peculiarly steep part" of the plateau [9]. The final counterattack was a "vigorous charge with the bayonet," which they claimed left the militia "not merely… repulsed but… broken and dismayed" [10]. In this charge, the British may have briefly succeeded in closing with Sumter’s men. James McConnel of Irvine’s battalion "was wounded in the right arm by a bayonet thrust" [11]. In any event, the Americans "abandoned the whole ridge" [12]. Francis Rawdon claimed this final charge was made by the Legion infantry; a first-hand account places a part of the Prince of Wales' American Regiment on the scene as well [13].

The Final Bayonet Charge (two views; click to enlarge). A fierce bayonet charge drives the Americans off the plateau.

American accounts do not describe such a defeat as the British claimed. Instead, they asserted that Sumter intentionally "had his men withdrawn a small distance." This was done so that the men could be properly "formed" and "stragglers collected." Sumter's intention was "to renew the action." However, as "he rode along the line, personally inquiring of each man his stock of ammunition," he "found that they had not on an average three rounds per man" [14].

There were other serious problems as well. Because "the weather was warm," [15] men were "fainting with heat and drought" [16]. Also, the final British position was "in the centre of the cleared ground" and following William Davie’s charge they "formed a hollow square" [17]. Davie noted that "The distance of the square from the woods, and the fire of the two pieces of field artillery, prevented the militia from making any considerable impression on the British troops" [18].

A final significant factor was the considerable losses that the Americans had sustained. Among the officers, for example, David Reid of North Carolina and John McClure were both mortally wounded in the assault on Bryan’s camp [19]. Richard Winn was shot during the fighting with the Prince of Wales' American Regiment; William Hill was also shot around the same time [20]. William Robison "was wounded by a musket shot through the shoulder," [21] Samuel Otterson was shot "in my left arm which severed" "about midway" "the bone between the elbow and shoulder," [22] and one Captain Petty "had his arm shot off" [23]. James Jamieson "was wounded by a musket shot through the body" [24], left on the field of battle, and subsequently "taken prisoner" [25].

The British Square (click to enlarge). The British form a defensive square in the center of the open area, daring the Americans to attack.

Stalemate. The Provincials launch a desperate bayonet charge against the Americans that have gathered south of the center camp. Neither side is strong enough to completely drive the other from the field.


1. The pension application of James Clinton, transcribed by Will Graves.

2. cf. the letter from Francis Rawdon to Colonel McMahon, January 19, 1801.

3. William Davie's account; see The Revolutionary War Sketches of William R. Davie [extract]. Davie's account also appears in, John H. Wheeler. (1851). Historical Sketches of North Carolina from 1584 to 1851, Vol. 1.

4. Joseph Graham's account; see William A. Graham (1904). General Joseph Graham and His Papers on North Carolina Revolutionary History.

5. Davie, ibid.

6. Graham, ibid.

7. Graham, ibid.

8. American sources are almost silent on the subject of British charges during this period. Charles Stedman wrote that the Provincials made, "three desperate charges with the bayonet." One of these would have been the earlier charge that retook a cannon. George Hanger was less precise: "Sumpter renewed the attack; he was again and again beat off, charged, and pursued, but with regularity." Banastre Tarleton mentioned two charges and attributed these solely (and probably incorrectly) to the British Legion. His account is unclear as to whether one or more additional charges took place after other Provincials joined the Legion’s resistance.

9. Rawdon, ibid. Although there is not a consensus about where the fighting took place, each of the several possibilities I considered previously identified the final part of the battle with the plateau transected by the Camden Road (links to these posts can be found here). The plateau itself does not have "peculiarly steep" slopes. However, there is a place several hundred yards south of the point I’ve identified as the center camp where a kind of gully comes close to the Camden Road (the open area where the Provincials made their stand). Perhaps this terrain feature was used by the Americans to approach and fire on the Provincials in relative safety.

10. Rawdon, ibid.

11. The pension application of James McConnel, transcribed by Will Graves. It is usually difficult to tell when and where participants' injuries occurred. McConnel could plausibly have been stabbed by a bayonet at other points and places. This charge, however, seems to have been the most successful of the battle, and some of Irvine’s men are known to have been present (cf. Joseph Graham, ibid.).

12. Rawdon, ibid.

13. For the account of an anonymous officer of the Prince of Wales' American Regiment, see Todd Braisted (2001). A History of the Prince of Wales' American Regiment.

14. Graham, ibid. In light of the fact that the Americans were later compelled to abandon the ground, Graham claimed that this shortage "was the true cause of [Sumter's] retreating" Sumter agreed, writing not long after the battle that "the true cause of my not totally defeating [the British] was the want of lead, having been obliged to make use of arms and ammunition taken from the enemy." See the letter from Thomas Sumter to Thomas Pinckney, August 9, 1780.

Clearly by this point in the battle, Sumter was on the scene of the fighting south of the center camp. Earlier he oversaw the destruction of a detachment of the Prince of Wales' American Regiment. In consequence, Sumter's account of the battle (Sumter, ibid.) provides few details about the fighting near the center camp. He wrote that the British "sustained [the battle for the center camp] with great bravery for near an hour; at length [they] gave way, leaving me in full possession of their camp." They then, "rallied again in Col. Robinson’s encampment," which seems to mean in or near the camp of the Prince of Wales’ American Regiment. From this point on, however, "their opposition was but feeble."

Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Robinson was an officer in a different Provincial regiment: the South Carolina Royalists. Neither he nor his men were at Hanging Rock.

15. Clinton, ibid.

16. Sumter, ibid.

17. Davie, ibid. Graham, ibid., also mentions this feature. Davie has the British adopting this formation as soon as they rallied south of the center camp, a view that is difficult to reconcile with British statements strongly pointing to a more active defense. More believable is that the several British accounts are essentially correct and that the British adopted the square formation only after Davie's dragoons chased a number of Loyalists and Provincials from the woods in their rear.

18. Davie, ibid.

19. Graham, ibid; Davie, ibid; Joseph Gaston. (1836/1873). Joseph Gaston's Narrative. The Historical Magazine and Notes and Queries Concerning the Antiquities, History and Biography of America, Vol. 1.

20. Davie, ibid; General Richard Winn's Notes -- 1780, transcribed by Will Graves. Alexander S. Salley. (1921). Col. William Hill's Memoirs of the Revolution.

21. The pension application of William Robison, transcribed by Will Graves.

22. The pension application of Samuel Otterson, transcribed by Will Graves.

23. The pension application of Daniel Carter, transcribed and annotated by C. Leon Harris.

24. The pension application of James Jamieson, transcribed by Will Graves.

25. The pension application of Henry Rea, transcribed by Will Graves.

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